As my handful of readers may know, I've been involved in anti-police violence campaigns for a couple of decades now, starting with an effort in Sacramento spearheaded by the NAACP to curb police brutality in the mid-'90s. In those days, killings by SPD were rare (I wish they still were), but Sacramento police were notorious for essentially arbitrary and random violence and brutality toward civilians. The reports that we collected from citizens were horrifying and graphic. They were used as part of a long campaign to bring accountability and reform to the Sacramento Police Department, a campaign which was partially successful.
The important part of the success of the campaign, at least to me, was that there was a significant reduction in the use of brutal tactics by the SPD and a consequent rise in public respect and regard for the police. This was not simply a matter of implementing a "stop beating us" comand from the top -- there were many components to the reform effort -- but that was a big part of it.
Although the campaign was spearheaded by the Sacramento NAACP, the reports and statistics we collected demonstrated clearly that most of those subjected to police brutality at that time were white, for the most part poor whites. Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and Blacks were not exempt by any means, nor, interestingly were women exempt, but there seemed to be a pattern of police brutality toward poor whites that was intended to leave a message of pain and terror in poor white communities, regardless of any actual criminality.
The same message was being delivered to other poor and ethnic minority communities in Sacramento. " Get outta line, or just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we'll beat the shit out of you."
(Note: Sacramento Sheriff's Department was -- and arguably still is -- worse by an order of magnitude, but the Sheriff's Department was not the direct target of the anti-police brutality campaign at that time. Nevertheless, they, too instituted some reforms as a result of the campaign -- as well as a result of numerous lawsuits brought against them for death and injury to civilians.)
One of the factors discovered during this campaign years ago was the litany of lies the police (and sheriffs) told to justify and excuse their brutality toward the public. These lies were ingrained into the culture of policing, so woven into that culture that I don't think the police even knew they were telling lies any more; lying was all but unconscious. But it was a fact.
They would routinely claim, for example, that the individual "resisted arrest," when it was patently untrue -- but nobody (who mattered) questioned police accounts, so why shouldn't they lie about their behavior and that of the public they supposedly served? Why shouldn't they? They lied about struggles that never took place. They lied about reasons for encounters. They lied about crimes supposedly in progress, flights of suspects that weren't and so on.
These lies were caught out and called out again and again, but this was before body cameras and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, so it was the officer's word against the public's, and for the most part, the officer's word -- even if it was a lie -- trumped the public's testimony every time.
Every time. That was an immense frustration, of course, and if it hadn't been for the intervention of the police chief, the mayor and the city manager, I don't believe there would have been any change to police behavior as a result of our campaign.
There was a lot of media coverage, however, and those individuals did intervene, and there were reforms. Accountability mechanisms were put in place -- not the one we wanted, a civilian review board, but at least there was something -- and behaviors were modified. Community policing programs were instituted (we can argue about that another time), and the number of complaints of brutality against the police dropped remarkably. While people might not have trusted them completely, the level of respect and trust between the police and the public improved substantially.
So. Success? Partially, yes. The situation seems to have deteriorated since then, and there's apparently been a lot of backsliding within the police department, but I'm not close to that situation any more, so I can't really comment on it -- except for the singular recent episode of the SPD killing of Joseph Mann which I have referred to in past posts and will refer to again in this one.
As I say, Sacramento police were not known as notorious killers back in the '90s and they still aren't in comparison to some other cities. Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. The number of killings by SPD is still quite low, although it has "ticked up" over the years. But the killing of Joseph Mann was shocking for the lies the department told to justify it, and for the obvious execution that took place in front of multiple video cameras.
It was a parallel incident to many of the outrageous street executions that have been taking place all over the country, documented by video and horrifying the public over and over again. Homeless, black, "armed", and in crisis, men (and some women) are targeted by police for summary execution nearly everywhere it seems. How did we descend to such depths of depravity where such conduct by police is acceptable or more and more routine?
That was one of the issues that ran through the campaign to stop police killings in Albuquerque, a campaign I was peripherally involved with. Over and over again police were killing.executing homeless, mentally ill, "armed" individuals (mostly men, but one woman notoriously) and they seemed to relish the job. They would routinely lie about it, too.
People in ABQ finally said "enough" when police snipers Dominque Perez of the SWAT team, and
Keith Sandy of the Repeat Offenders Project shot and killed James Boyd in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in March of 2014. Boyd was homeless, mentally ill, and disobedient. He was "armed" with two small folding knives which he used to ward off police on scene. Ergo, he was subject to summary execution. Perez and Sandy did the job, and they are now on trial for murder 2. During the trial, I learned there was another police sniper on scene who would have done the job -- except for the fact that Sandy and Perez and another officer were in the way. Oh for fuck's sake.
How did we descend to this level of depravity?
The absence of mental health care services, crisis intervention, and de-escalation/non-lethal tactics and options by police is well known, indeed it's notorious, throughout the country. The Boyd case is quite a bit more complex, however, and I won't go into that right now. The upshot over and over again is that people who shouldn't be dead are killed by police routinely. Police show "depraved indifference" for the lives of whole categories of individuals whom they kill with near total impunity, despite studies and task forces and reports, and particularly despite protests which have one message: STOP THE KILLING!
In some places -- including Albuquerque at least temporarily -- the message gets through. But in others? No. Not yet anyway.
If you are considered "armed" -- whether you are or not -- disobedient, and (particularly) if you are black, and you are in a confrontation with police, most often if the police are white, but not always, be prepared to die, because they will kill you.
They believe sincerely that killing you is their job. They have been rigorously taught and conditioned to believe you are an existential threat to be "neutralized," and almost always, when they perform their job in "neutralizing" you -- ie: killing you -- they are absolved of criminal liability, indeed, in many cases they are rewarded.
Recent cases include the street execution of Joseph Mann in Sacramento in July, police dashcam and private surveillance video of which has been released within the past week. There was a shaky and distant civilian video released in August, but it did not clearly show what happened. Sacramento police refused outright to release their dash cam and/or body cam videos of the incident claiming that doing so would "compromise the investigation." When the civilian video was released by Mann's family's attorney in August, however, it strongly suggested that the police account of what happened was a lie. Then, last Monday, the Sacramento Bee obtained and released a relatively clear surveillance video of the shooting, demonstrating all but conclusively that SPD had in fact lied about what happened, and showing without any doubt at all that Mr. Mann was summarily executed on the street, as have so many disobedient black men been executed.
The next day, SPD released three dash cam videos showing parts of the incident, confirming that indeed SPD had lied about what happened, and yes, Mr. Mann was executed by two police officers -- who I have been told will be fired within the next few months. The police chief has announced his impending retirement. The mayor has declared that "something" (unspecified) "should be done" about this... later clarified as "more transparency" which is not a solution at all, but he did appoint a subcommittee to review and make recommendations about "protocols..." I'm not holding my breath.
Meanwhile in Tulsa, a disobedient but unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, was shot and killed by a clearly panicking police officer, "in fear for her life," (the take away quote being, "I have never been so frightened in my life!") because... ???
Crutcher was not (apparently) obeying her "commands" -- when did police obtain the authority to command civilians, and who granted that authority? -- but he was not threatening her in any objective way, either (disobedience is not a priori a "threat.") The initial statements from Tulsa police about the incident were lies, but that's standard protocol it seems.
Crutcher was not armed, and he did not "reach into" his vehicle for a weapon (there was none) as stated by police, nor did he "reach for" a weapon in his waistband or pocket (there was none.) According to his family's attorney, he could not have reached into the vehicle because the driver's side window was rolled up. The police account that he had done so was a fantasy, or it was a deliberate and cynical lie.
The statement by the officer that he was not showing her his hands (thus justifying her panic and fear) was shown to be... "inoperative" when video from police dash cams and a helicopter camera showed Crutcher walking away from the officer (with her gun drawn) with his hands raised high over his head. He disobeys her (in that he does not stop and get on the ground) but he does not in any way whatsoever threaten her. When he reaches his car, he does not reach into the vehicle and he does not reach into his pocket (contra the statements of police) yet he is shot with a taser and police bullet essentially simultaneously. He falls, gravely wounded, while police back away "infearfortheirlives and thesafetyofothers," as Crutcher bleeds out on the street -- standard protocol in police involved shootings. Later, the officers involved in firing upon Crutcher are seen crouched behind a police car while other officers tend to Crutcher, some (astonishingly) surprisingly not infearfortheirlives and thesafetyofothers, and actually providing something like first aid -- all but unheard of in cases of police involved shooting.
Betty Shelby, the officer who fired the fatal shot, was promptly charged with manslaughter.
Her panic and fear apparently not overriding clear evidence that shooting and killing Terence Crutcher was not justified in the eyes of the district attorney.
We'll await results of a trial.
In Charlotte, Keith Scott was shot and killed by a black police officer for reasons that are unclear despite statements by CPD that he was armed and disobedient -- and black -- and we know what that can and too often does lead to.
The Charlotte police department has adamantly refused to release body and dash cam video of the incident citing the ongoing "investigation," but also describing the videos as "inconclusive" and "ambiguous" as to whether or not Mr. Scott was armed and/or "threatened" the officers.
His family saw one of the videos (or perhaps more) and stated through their attorney that one can't tell what -- if anything -- Mr. Scott has in his hand, whether a gun or a book or anything at all, but also stating that police accounts of Scott "advancing" on officers or threatening them in any way are simply false. No such thing happened.
But who knows, as police will not release the videos, and a North Carolina law is shortly to go into effect forbidding release of police video absent a court order. Oh my.
So Keith Scott's wife released her own video of the incident, a video which does not show Mr. Scott until after he's been shot, but which, interestingly, suggests that the still photo which CPD released which they claim shows the gun Mr. Scott had and "brandished" at police and "refused" to drop at police command, may not be a gun at all, and which shows conclusively that no such object was at Mr. Scott's feet shortly after he was shot.
Charlotte police not only have not released their own videos of the incident, they have been lying ("as is standard in cases of police involved shootings" as I put it in a previous post) about what happened and have been issuing false information (such as the photo they have circulated showing a "gun" at Scott's feet.)
"Armed", disobedient, and black is too often a death sentence in this country. "Armed," disobedient and mentally ill in this country is too often a death sentence in this country. The mere report of someone "armed" and disobedient can too often be a death sentence in this country. And too often, police are protected from criminal culpability when they kill someone in this country.
On the other hand, police in this country are trained and conditioned to believe that a disobedient black or mentally ill individual represents an existential threat to be "neutralized" -- regardless of whether he or she is "armed." Preferable "neutralization" is death.
Many police departments have designated killers whose specific job duty is the "neutralization" of threats. Most police departments place "force protection" (ie: protection of police officers) at the top of their priority list. Safety and protection of civilians -- particularly of suspects/subjects -- may not even be on their list of priorities at all.
Police are trained and expected to be confrontational, authoritarian, and aggressive in most cases where they suspect or encounter disobedience or anything less than immediate compliance with their often contradictory or incomprehensible "commands." In most cases, police are given free latitude to use any level of force they deem appropriate or necessary to gain compliance or to neutralize a threat based solely on their perception at the moment.
"Second guessing" their "split-second decisions" is forbidden. The only standard recognized by courts and many departments is the stated perception of the officer at the moment he or she uses whatever force the officer deems necessary including lethal force -- ie: "fearingformylifeandthesafetyofothers", invoked as a mantra. Thus it is almost impossible to hold police officers criminally liable or even administratively responsible for anything they do under color of authority (apart from some sexual misconduct.)
Killing is fine; lying about it is "standard protocol"; having an affair can (but most often won't) get them fired. Domestic abuse and/or rape might get them in court...
I ask again, how did we descend to such a level of depravity? And what does it take to reverse the descent?
That's a topic for another post. The issue is complex, but the problem is not hopeless. "Reform" is not always the answer, nor is it always possible. Sometimes "abolition" is the only way forward. It has been done a few times when irredeemably corrupt police departments have been abolished altogether, but the movement for abolition of police departments is only in its infancy. There is a growing recognition that something is terribly wrong with policing in this country, but the rot infects the entire justice and corrections systems, top to bottom. That rot is paralleled in the social service realm, education, economic and political sectors as well.
The United States has been on this downward socio/political spiral for more than a generation. Not that everything was perfect before -- far from it. What we need to do is recognize that the current course -- including police impunity, but not limited to it -- is unsustainable and there needs to be a collective determination to institute fundamental systemic change.